The emergence of city regions

Jon Bloomfield

The structures of sub-national government in the UK are about to undergo major change not just in Scotland but across the major conurbations. As George Osborne has said “In a modern, knowledge-based economy city size matters like never before.”

This is not an isolated UK view. I have recently undertaken a study on metropolitan governance for the Council of Europe. The trend is clear across the developed world. Increasingly, the new models of economic growth look for clusters of activity and interactive networks, which combined with longer distance commuting is helping to reconfigure economic activity towards larger conglomerations.

Across Europe, there are more than one hundred and thirty conurbations that fall into this category. In total, including Turkey, more than 200 million people live in these metropolitan regions accounting for more than one third of the overall population.

Economic development, transportation and spatial planning are the defining issues of metropolitan governance. These are the core themes that feature most commonly in the activities of metropolitan regions, especially given their need to compete on an increasingly pan-European and global scale. In order to manage these developments new types of supra-urban government organisation have begun to emerge, so that political boundaries are able to reflect a changing economic and social geography.

Metropolitan governance has emerged in an ad hoc fashion across Europe. However, in essence we can discern three basic models:

  • Type 1, the strong model, where elected metropolitan authorities are entrusted with specific competences to address a range of issues, usually with their own executive organisations and significant budgets. This is common in the larger French cities – Lyon, Lille, Toulouse; major Turkish cities; Madrid and Barcelona; and in the UK London.
  • Type 2, the combined model, which creates joint metropolitan bodies (combined authorities) with formalised agreements entrusted with broader local and strategic functions and powers, run by representative drawn from various levels of government (indirectly elected or appointed) usually avoiding new government layers. Greater Manchester is the best UK example.
  • Type 3, the soft model, which offers cooperation and collaboration on a voluntary basis when common support is required. The report cites examples in Sweden, Germany, Austria and some emerging trends in East European cities.

In addition, given that commuting lies at the heart of the emergence of metropolitan regions, many conurbations do not have any overarching metropolitan governance structures but rather have a stand-alone, sectoral transport authority.

The report indicates that over time as the sphere of metropolitan governance becomes established, the demand for these areas to be able to raise their own revenues will grow. It also suggests that as good practice central government should set both the economic criteria and framework for accountability for a city region but should neither determine its geographical shape nor its political structures. This needs to be an organic development decided and agreed by the local partners. This is a major bone of contention in the UK, where central government wants to impose elected mayors on areas regardless of local wishes. At the same time the report is very clear that there needs to be a clear division of tasks and responsibilities between all the public authorities within the metropolitan region, so that they and citizens understand clearly who is responsible for what task

Jon Bloomfield is an expert on EU funding, European and EU issues of regional and local government who carries out research in the EU and contributes to post-graduate programme.

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